“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. This quote from the American food guru Michael Pollan immediately comes to mind when I ask myself what the optimal diet for hiking should be. A “good” diet when mountaineering is often defined in terms of quantity rather than the quality. You need to take in a lot of calories because you are burning so many of them. Fitness experts often say that athletic performance is 60 per cent food and 40 per cent exercise.
Apart from these figures, proper nutrition in mountain sports is an important component that helps determine how the tour will go. Therefore, today we want to take a closer look at the individual components of nutrition in mountain sports to make your next summit climb a complete success.
The nutritional components of food
Whether it’s during breakfast before the tour, on your break at the hut or while walking in the mountains, food consists of three parts that are equally important and relevant: carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
Popular foods such as pasta, bread, potatoes or rice consist largely of carbohydrates. All carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram. Carbs are also found in starchy vegetables and sugary foods such as fruits, soda, honey, chocolate or potato crisps. In the human digestive tract, all carbohydrates are broken down into glucose.
Glucose is a simple sugar that enables the brain and central nervous system to function and any movement to take place. Many mountain athletes like to consume large amounts of carbohydrate-rich meals because they fill you up and are affordable. Unfortunately, not all carbohydrates provide the same level of performance. In order to be able to distinguish which are the right ones, we need to divide the carbohydrates into groups.
Sugars (simple sugars such as glucose) are found primarily in candy, soft drinks, processed foods, white bread and cakes. Likewise, some healthy foods, such as many fruits, contain sugar as the main carbohydrate component. Foods that are high in sugar are generally known to provide a rapid energy boost after consumption. Conversely, performance drops even faster after the body has used up the calories. Starchy foods (complex carbohydrates) such as vegetables, potatoes, pasta, wholemeal products and brown rice provide energy at a slower rate. Sugar burns quickly, but starch burns more slowly.
After water, proteins are the most abundant molecules found in the body and give muscles their structure, among other things. Like carbohydrates, proteins provide 4 calories per gram. In the digestive system, proteins are broken down into amino acids.
Amino acids serve the body as building blocks for new cell structures and are also used to repair damaged cells (such as the famous muscle soreness). At the same time, amino acids are needed to maintain the immune system. Meat from beef or poultry are very rich in protein and hardly contain any carbohydrates. Eggs, hard cheeses, nuts, avocados, oils and many seeds such as sesame seeds contain varying amounts of carbohydrates, but nutrition experts tend to classify them as high-fat or high-protein foods.
Many mountain athletes worry that they are not taking in enough protein. Therefore, they rely on supplements such as protein-rich drinks or bars. Current recommendations for endurance athletes speak of 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per day per kilogram of body mass. This is almost double the recommendation for “inactive” people.
In the case of endurance sports such as mountaineering or hiking, between 5 and 10 per cent of energy is derived from proteins. These must be returned to the body through food. Protein is also needed to repair broken muscle cells, as described above. Even though an endurance athlete builds little to no muscle mass compared to a bodybuilder, protein is needed for the renewal of mitochondria, capillaries, nerves and other cells in the muscle.
Even if the fats are generally described as bad, they are essential for mountain sports. There are four different types of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans. All of these types of fat provide 9 calories per gram, which is significantly more than either protein or carbohydrates. Fat is an ideal fuel, especially during long mountain pursuits. It’s released at a low intensity and used by the body as an energy source.
This is because the body has large fat reserves. An average fit climber has around 2,000 calories stored as carbohydrates in the liver and muscles. By comparison, the same athlete has a “reserve” of 100,000 calories, which is stored mainly in fat under the skin. In theory, that would be enough energy to climb Mount Everest several times or run 20 marathons. So, it makes perfect sense for all alpinists to tap into these energy reserves on their next tour. However, this requires some practice to make this possible.
Use of fat as a source of energy
Through regular training (mountaineering, hill walking, trail running, running, cycling, etc.) and a balanced diet, the body learns to use the stored fat as a source of energy. This means that you won’t need to carry as many provisions in your backpack. The following two factors are equally important: the longer the mountain tour, the more fat you use. The lower the intensity, the more fat can be used for energy. When the intensity increases, the body primarily burns carbohydrates because they provide energy faster than fats.
|Fat||Found in what?||Examples:||Why is it important?|
|Saturated||Milk, meat||Beef, pork, poultry, milk, butter, cream, coconut oil||These are needed to produce certain hormones, but intake should be limited. They raise cholesterol levels.|
|Monounsaturated||Vegetables, nuts||Olives, avocado, hazelnuts, peanuts, almonds, pistachios, olive oil, peanut oil||Most calories consumed through fats should come from this group.|
|Polyunsaturated||Some nuts, fish, certain oils||Saltwater fish, walnuts, sunflower oil, corn oil, flaxseed oil, flaxseed||These are generally considered to be beneficial to health and have an anti-inflammatory effect. Omega 3 and Omega 6 are essential fatty acids. These are needed, but cannot be produced by the body itself.|
|Trans fatty acids||These are found in small amounts in just about all foods||In many processed foods, fast food||Trans fats are generally considered to be bad and cause long-term health problems. They increase cholesterol levels.|
The function of insulin
The consumption of food, especially food rich in carbohydrates, triggers the production and release of the hormone insulin in the body. Insulin controls the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Figuratively, insulin can be thought of as a key that opens the cells. The cells can then absorb the released glucose from the blood and provide energy.
Likewise, the hormone has an anabolic effect: it activates the formation of new protein structures, especially the repair and production of muscle cells. At the same time, insulin controls how many carbohydrates are stored in the muscles or liver. This stored form of carbohydrates is called glycogen. Glycogen is available as a reserve and can be released when needed to supply energy to the cells as you climb.
Carbohydrate intake, insulin and burning fat
The intake of carbohydrates before mountain sports, even in small amounts, inhibits the burning of fat because the body releases the hormone insulin. Consuming foods high in simple sugars, such as sweets, chocolate bars, energy gels and energy bars, before or during a mountain tour often leads to a rapid drop in performance during the climb.
This is because the digestion of carbohydrates causes insulin to circulate in the blood, preventing around 30% of stored fats from being metabolized. High-intensity situations and the release of adrenaline (via ferrata, exposed route, vertigo) inhibit the production of insulin. So if you’re going on a long climb and will stay in the low heart rate zone, don’t eat a bar or gel beforehand. A small snack is ideal. It should contain a balanced mix of fats and carbohydrates, which are released more slowly for long-lasting performance. A good example of something to eat is a slice of wholemeal bread with a little bit of butter.
The ideal food for your next mountain tour and what to eat for breakfast
Optimally, start your day off with a balanced breakfast two to four hours before the planned tour. Although this is usually done during hut-to-hut tours, starting your ascent right after breakfast is not ideal. This is because the digestive system will be busy for a while and the energy will not be available for climbing. You may feel nauseous, have stomach pains or an increased heart rate if you leave too quickly after eating.
Breakfast according to plan
The aim of breakfast should be to fill your energy reserves. The body also consumes energy during sleep. A great breakfast consists of all three components (carbohydrates, fats, proteins). If you look at the total intake of daily calories, breakfast should account for 25% of them. It’s also important to drink (https://www.alpinetrek.co.uk/hydration-sports-calculator/). The following table shows a few breakfast recommendations that you can also eat when taking breaks.
|Cereal products, bread||Muesli bar (with nuts, cereals and dried fruit), wholemeal bread or bread roll, muesli (with fresh fruit, dried fruit or nuts)|
|Dairy products||Milk, yogurt, hard cheese|
|Fruit and vegetables||Tomato, cucumber, carrot, kohlrabi, apple, banana, fresh fruit like peaches or strawberries (seasonal)|
|Fish, meat/sausage||Ham, turkey breast cold cuts, eggs (hard boiled for the mountain)|
|Fat||Butter, margarine (use sparingly)|
|Drinks||Tap water, mineral water, coffee, tea|
Some of the most important points about nutrition while hiking:
- Especially when touring for more than two hours, eat small amounts of food regularly. Ideally, you should consume around 100 calories per hour on tour
- The higher the intensity, the more carbohydrates are needed. Likewise, it will be harder to eat and chew when you’re out of breath. In this case, you can get calories through a sports drink
- The lower the intensity, the more fat is released and burned
- The longer the planned tour, the more balanced the food should be. This is the only way to achieve an optimal balance between fats, carbohydrates and proteins
- Eat breakfast well before the tour
Personal experiences of alpine athletes on nutrition while hiking usually differ greatly. When in doubt, it’s better to consider individual preferences. After all, your mountain tour shouldn’t become a science experiment. So, your diet in the mountains should not vary greatly from what you usually eat at home. If you’re not sure what you like to eat and what works for you, you can try out different things. With time you’ll find out exactly what your favourite foods are to bring on your hikes, treks and summit climbs in the Alps.